Thailand Day 4 (part 2): One Hundred Years in One Day

So much for thinking there were only a handful of new arrivals since last being here in Mae Sot 6 months ago. The General Amnesty of September 2009 where 128 political prisoners were released had seen a signifcant number of people flee across the border since then – both those who had been released and others whose lives had become un-liveable as a former political prisoner inside Burma. In short the only difference is that once released from prison you are no longer in a cell. Almost everything else about your life remains the same but just in a different context. Constant monitoring, harrasement and mental torture by the regime and its thugs – for a former political prisoner life can so easily cease to exist as everything is taken from you – even your friends and family. Many are therefore forced to flee across the border into Thailand – this is not easy and is a trip faced with extreme danger. As a former political prisoner you are always watched and being caught trying to flee brings about an immediate return to jail.

(Naw Ohn Hla – currently in Insein for leading prayers at Shwedagon pagoda for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and all political prisoners)

So as the 10th Anniversary event came to a close in the mid-day sun, the first day of shooting got underway almost straight away. The next few days were going to be very busy – the initial estimates of 5 or so new faces were way off the mark. The next 5 hours saw us race around town on the back of bikes as we met , interviewed and photographed 11 new arrivals in Mae Sot since last being here: Daw Cho Mar Htwe (11 year), U Zawana (16 years), U Sandawbartha (16 years), U Thawbita (1 year), Soe Lwin (15 years), Moe Kalayar Oo (6 years), Soe Htike (8 years), San Lwin Oo (2 years), U Kyaw Kyaw (6 years), Sein Kyaw Oo (5 years), and Thwin Linn Aung (5 years). In one afternoon 11 people had spent almost 100 years in prison.

(Cho Mar Htwe being interviewed by Jacquelin San)

One of the first people I heard about that had recently arrived was Daw Cho Mar Htwe. She was arrested in 1998 as a member of the NLD and spent 11 years in Insein and Moulmein prisons before being released in the Amnesty of September 2009. The funny thing was that my good friend Ma Khin Cho Myint @ Zulu had written Cho Mar Htwe’s name on her hand when I took her portrait in Nupo camp last year. It was the second time I had had to take Zulu’s portrait as the original name she wrote on her hand had also been released… so with Cho Mar Htwe now having been released I needed to take yet another picture of Zulu… her hand was now quickly becoming known as the lucky hand! So first stop was to Lae Lae’s house where Daw Cho Mar Htwe was now living – in fact whilst we were there we also photographed Sein Kyaw Oo and Thwin Linn Aung – who was of particular interest to Jackie as he had been a prominent student leader at Rangoon university during the student uprisings in 1996 whilst she had been one of the many junior students who sat in the road at Hledan junction listening to their seniors speaking. Then it was a race across town to see Moe Kalayar Oo and her husband Soe Htike. Moe Kalayar Oo spent 6 years in jail because of her participation in the demonstration during the funeral ceremony of U Nu. During the Saffron Revolution she was a member of the 88 Generation Students but evaded arrest and went on to assist Nargis victims in 2008. But the authorities finally caught up with her so she fled with her family. Her husband Soe Htike had been involved in the All Burma Students Democratic Movement and was arrested in 1991 spending 8 years in Insein and Tharawaddy prisons. Like his wife he then became a member of the 88 Generation Students and was one of the core group outside Insein prison every day whilst Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was on trial in summer of 2009.

(U Zawana and U Sandawbartha – both spent more than 16 years each in Burma’s prisons)

Back across town again to Thiha’s home for a meeting with monks U Zawana and U Sandawbartha. Both had spent more than 16 years each in prison – much of it together in Insein and Tharawaddy. Both were from the same monastery in Rangoon – Shwe Pyi Thar learner’s monastery and U Sandawbartha being arrested 2 days earlier and both were finally released in September 2009. In 1992 U Zawana met with UN Special Rapporteur of human rights Mr. Yozo Yokota and gave evidence on the situation inside the country. He was subsequently sentenced to 29 years in jail – full interviews with both will be available soon. Staying in Thiha’s house temporarily is Soe Lwin – 15 years in 4 different prisons having been sentenced to 24 years in jail. It’s so hard to get your round being with someone so young who has spent half of their life in prison for absolutely no reason. It’s always a time to reflect on so many things whenever I meet a former political prisoner, but also it provides you with such an amazing sense of inspiration. Anything is possible if you put your mind to it. Just ask these people who have survived hell.

(Soe Lwin – 15 years spent in Insein, Myeik, Tavoy and Moulmein prisons)

The final stop of the day was to visit the People’s Volunteer Association being run by former political prisoners San Lwin Oo arrested after Saffron Revolution in 2007 and U Kyaw Kyaw – a solo protester arrested in 2003 and who has been jailed for 6 years. The organisation was formerly known as the “Burma Volunteers Association” and is a non-profit association taking a leading role to solve the social conflicts in the migrant community in Thailand. We photographed both men in a dusty road where the office is located but also is the home to hundreds of Burmese migrants – as though stacked one on top each other like chickens in a battery farm. It may be a sense of freedom from the oppression behind the walls that is Burma but its a very long way from the world that most people are lucky enough to be able to enjoy.

As the last of the light disappeared we headed back to AAPP to join in the celebrations (see part one of this post). A completely unexpected start to have photographed so many in one afternoon and simply not possible without the ever present help from Thiha and also the Secretary General keeping me on the straight and narrow and concentrating on what I had to do. without them both doing all the real hard work in interviews and planning then most of this campaign just wouldn’t have the depth that it does.

100 years in prison in one day. There’s nothing to add to that sombre fact.

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Thailand Day 4 (part 1): Ten Years Strong

Ten years ago today, on 23rd March 2000, former political prisoners from Burma living in exile in Thailand formed the human rights organisation the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), more commonly known as the AAPP. The date of 23rd March has relevance as it is the anniversary of the arrest of student leader Min Ko Naing in 1988. For the past ten years, AAPP has cast light on the dark situation that is the hell of Burma’s prisons and the political prisoners that have suffered within them. It has played a vital role in reporting to International governments and the UN on the situation of political prisoners in Burma and has campaigned vigorously and untiringly to both raise awareness and bring about change. It provides a voice and support for the 2,186 political prisoners currently incarcerated in Burma’s jails and also assistance to their families and those who have been forced to flee into exile.

The day starts in a rush and thankfully we grab a lift from Dr Naing Aung from the AAPP office to the Rujira Hotel on the outskirts of Mae Sot – where the celebrations are being held. More than 150 people had gathered to this special occasion – former political prisoners, activists, exiled NLD Members of Parliament – the room was awash with important people who had come to acknowledge not just the work and tenth anniversary of AAPP but more importantly the fact that 2,186 people were still in jail and the fact that a significant number of those people should be playing important roles in the forthcoming elections. Former political prisoners dressed in their blue prison uniforms carried a banner that re-iterated this message “There can be no national reconciliation in Burma as long as there are political prisoners”. There is really no other way to put it.

It was a strange experience to know so many people in the room – to have been privileged to have shared the lives of so many of them for this project; an honour to be a part of this family. I wouldn’t have missed this for the world. Anniversary t-shirts in the prisoner colour blue were handed out to all and the MCs Moe Myat Thu and Ma Suu Mon Aye got things underway. The former political prisoners performed to the packed hall and a number of prominent activists and former political prisoners spoke to the audience. It was a great day and I spent most of the event wandering around chatting to people and taking the odd photograph – you can see the photos here. Also with so many former political prisoners gathered in one place it was also a great opportunity to start planning who to photograph and a real coup as Daw San San, NLD MP, Vice President of the MPPU and former political prisoner agreed to have her portrait taken later in the week. In fact our initial estimates of 5 or so new faces to photograph in Mae Sot were way off target. We also caught up with Ma Thida who was over from DVB in Oslo – so many friends everywhere but a big surprise for Jackie who met a very special old friend (now in Generation Wave) whom she hadn’t seen for ten years since having to leave Burma in 2000. It was a wonderful moment to enjoy a re-union and such a small world to be re-united here in Mae Sot both fighting as activists for their country.

To mark the 10th anniversary the AAPP were launching their new report “The Role of Political Prisoners in the National Reconciliation Process”. The report calls on the international community to press the military junta to unconditionally release all political prisoners, review the 2008 Constitution, and begin a tripartite dialogue. But the report also calls for the criminal records of all political prisoners to be erased. The 2010 election and party registration laws prohibit current prisoners including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and U Khun Tun Oo from standing for election or belonging to a political part – and this is a key point if there is to be any sense of real democratic change and progress for Burma. You can condemn the constitution, repression and general disastrous human rights situation throughout Burma all you like but the basic fact that the very people who were not only originally elected to run the country but who are also who the people of Burma would still want to play a role now in shaping its future are still in jail. Their unconditional release and involvement in the political process is fundamental if there is ever to be meaningful change in Burma.

The new report was launched at a press conference and the whole event was filmed by Democratic Voice of Burma DVB and you can read all about the days events here in a report from The Irrawaddy. The celebrations continued throughout the day culminating in an evening event held at the office of AAPP for former political prisoners and a selection of specially invited guests – time to really celebrate and for me an incredible moment as a slideshow of the 115 photographs of this project was played on a big screen to everyone – amazing feeling to see all these former political prisoners watching their colleagues from all over the world – it made all the hard work really seem worthwhile to have it shown and acknowledged in such company. Everyone partied long in to the night – a well deserved day of celebration but also acknowledgement of the role of political prisoners in Burma’s past, present and future.

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Thailand Day 3: Touchdown in Mae Sot

Another night bus from Bangkok… another night in the freezer. At least this time my contact in Bangkok bought the tickets so we had front row seats as opposed to the usual place for Farangs at the back right – just above the engine. The excitement of being back so close to home for the first time in years must have proved too much for The Secretary Generals teeth as Day 2 was spent undergoing emergency root canal surgery in Bangkok. Thanks to Bumrungrad International hospital in Bangkok it was a relatively pain-free experience – an amazing hospital. We also had dinner last night with some very special friends indeed (who cannot be identified due to their profile) and continued in accompanying us for a very quick low profile trip to Mae Sot – something that had been planned for some time and was pulled off without anyone knowing or realising… other than of course the people they had come to meet.

First stop was naturally to swing by the AAPP office to check in and catch up with everyone. The 10th Anniversary is tomorrow and final preparations and practice of the performance was underway. Also the new museum has been finished and it looks great (more photos available soon).

It was also great to see Thiha again (pictured above with the 10th anniversary t-shirts) – our close friend and former political prisoner of 17 and a half years and very much an integral part of the team on the ground here in Mae Sot. Initially we had plans to photograph about 5 or so new arrivals in Mae Sot plus trips back to both Umpiem Mai and also Nupo refugee camps to also photograph about 20 new arrivals but also to start work on documenting the current situation for former political prisoners and the mess that is the resettlement programme. But it’s way more than a mess and will be a whole blog entry on its own at some point in the coming weeks once we have got some of the work done – in a nutshell the situation is perilous for many former political prisoners who basically aren’t recognised as refugees and so are left in a state of flux faced with the very real danger of being returned to Burma… where of course the regime know exactly who they are and would send them straight back to jail for very lengthy prison terms.

The late afternoon and evening was spent with our special friends who accompanied us for a 24 hour visit – we visited the places and met the people we needed to. I’m hopefully it will be very fruitful for the future for all concerned – we have some great plans but above all it was a real honour and wonderful experience.

So here we are back in Mae Sot for the 3rd time in just over a year, but this trip is by far the most important to date. There’s a trip in to Burma planned for this project… Months of planning now lie in the hands of fate and the ever changing daily situation inside the country. Silence is Golden but now the silence can start to be broken and in part will be revealed in a UK newspaper on Saturday 24th April (full details to follow).

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Thailand Day 17: Mae Sot – From Fleeing Lawyers to Coco Island

Another day spent racing round Mae Sot on the back of the bike as Ko Thiha took me from one place to the next. In total a further 8 former prisoners were photographed, including a re-shoot with Ma Thida Htway when we bumped into her at the Burma Lawyers Council – it was a good idea of hers to take another photo as the new one is simply a classic and quite possibly may be the book cover. We were at The Burma Lawyer’s Council to photograph Saw Kyaw Kyaw Min, the young lawyer who fled Burma in 2008 when defending a number of political activists. He was charged with contempt of court and sentenced to jail himself. Luckily he managed to go into hiding and fled to the border where he now continues his work as a lawyer with the Burma Lawyer’s Council. I had already made the decision to photograph certain people who whilst not actually former prisoners themselves, they are inextricably linked in one way or another and Kyaw Kyaw Min was one of those people who its important is part of this project. It adds another dimension.

Next up we went to one of the offices of the National League for Democracy (NLD) to meet no fewer than four former political prisoners who between them had spent 42 years in jail. This gives you some idea of just how much the members of the opposition party, but winners of the 1990 general elections have been victimised by the regime – a regime that is holding on to power illegitimately. I was warmly welcomed by Ko Myint Soe (14 years); Ko Moe Myat Thu (9 years) Ko Zaw Aung (10 years); Ko Moe Zaw Oo (9 years) and it was my honour to be able to take their photograph and spend time in their company. It’s too hard to explain in this blog just how you feel when you meet these people – they are so humble in light of what they have been through, yet steely determined that they will one day overcome… it gives me such determination to push this project all the way to the limit at whatever cost.

Possibly the most extraordinary moment of all came when we went back to Ko Thiha’s house where we met U Mya Sein. The oldest former political prisoner I had met yet, U Mya Sein was first jailed in 1965 in Insein prison and then he was transfered in 1969 where he was sent to Coco Island. In 1959 General Ne Win established a penal colony on Great Coco Island. After he seized power in 1962 the prison gained the reputation of being a Burmese ‘Devil’s Island’ and in 1969 it was enlarged to cater to an increased number of political prisoners. The prison was closed in 1971 after a strike by all of the prisoners and the island was transfered to the Burmese Navy. U Mya Sein spent a total of 13 years in jail.

In the background to this portrait of U Mya Sein is another landmark in the struggle for democracy in Burma. On 14th February 2008, Pado Mahn Shah La Phan was assassinated by agents from the Burmese military regime who had sneaked across the border. He was shot in cold blood, in broad daylight, whilst sitting on the veranda of his house. The very house and veranda that is in the background to this portrait. Mahn Sha was an enigmatic leader, one of few who was able to bring together the many different factions and groups fighting for democracy and freedom in Burma. He was respected by everybody and feared by the regime. A loss of great magnitude but a reminder that at every corner there is nothing that the SPDC will stop at to eradicate all those who oppose them.

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